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Louisiana editorial roundup

February 7, 2018

Recent editorials from Louisiana newspapers:

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Feb. 7

NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune on a new study saying Louisiana’s wetland forests are worth $74.9 billion to the economy:

If you live in South Louisiana, it’s easy to understand the value of the coastal marshes that help protect us from storm surge. Our homes and our lives depend on the strength of wetlands.

But getting Congress to understand hasn’t been as easy. A new study that puts a dollar value on wetlands might help. Louisiana’s wetland forests are worth $74.9 billion to the economy, according to an analysis by Dogwood Alliance.

“We shouldn’t have to put a price tag on forests,” said Sam Davis, the alliance’s research director. “But when we do it shows just how valuable they are when we invest in their protection.”

That calculation is especially important to Louisiana, which is implementing a 50-year master plan to stop coastal erosion and rebuild land. The state has lost more than 2,000 square miles of coast since the 1930s, making coastal communities more vulnerable to storm damage and even extinction.

With the master plan, Louisiana is fighting to regain some of that lost land. In 2017, Louisiana’s coastal scientists built more than 1,000 acres of marsh, protected 32 miles of coast and planted more than 100,000 native plants and trees.

But there is a looming question: Where will the state get the money to pay for the full master plan. The cost is growing. When the plan was approved by the Legislature in 2007, the price tag was estimated at $50 billion. Now, it is up to $92 billion.

Louisiana is putting its share of the settlement from the 2010 BP oil spill toward restoration projects, but that is a finite pool of money. The state has only one ongoing source of revenue for the coast: the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, which will give the state a share of federal oil and gas royalties.

A decade after Congress passed GOMESA, the money is just now starting to flow in. Unfortunately, projections are dramatically lower than the state had expected because energy expansion has slowed down.

Instead of getting $140 million per year in oil and gas royalties, the Department of the Interior said in October that Louisiana would receive only about half that much. Twenty coastal parishes were expecting to split as much as $37 million, but that also was cut in half.

To cushion that financial blow, Sen. Bill Cassidy and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise got nearly $300 million in coastal restoration funding for Gulf Coast states in 2020 and 2021 in the tax bill that passed in December.

In addition to the decrease in revenues, GOMESA has been under attack from the White House. Both former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump have tried to take back the revenue sharing money to use for other expenses. So far, Congress hasn’t let that happen.

But not every House and Senate member seems to understand how crucial Louisiana’s coast is to the economy.

Civic and political leaders laid out the impact in a letter to President Trump last summer. Louisiana has five of the nation’s 15 largest shipping ports by cargo volume, which handle one-fifth of the nation’s water-borne commerce, the letter said. In addition, our state is responsible for $47 billion per year in oil and gas production and accounts for nearly 30 percent of the commercial fishing landings in the continental United States.

The Dogwood Alliance study of the economic value of Louisiana wetlands adds to that list: $21.7 billion in tourism and recreation; $12.5 billion in food and pollination; $18.3 billion in water supply and treatment, and $23.8 billion in handling water flow and “extreme events.”

The benefits of investing in our coast are obvious, not only for the people who live here, but for the nation. Congress and President Trump ought to be able to see that.

Online: http://www.nola.com

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Feb. 7

The Advocate on preventing the flu’s late surge:

It’s Carnival, and that highlight of our Louisiana calendar usually arrives after flu season is long gone.

Not this year.

Even with Mardi Gras parades rolling, the flu season of 2018 continues to be one for the record books. The Louisiana Department of Health reports that while the incidence of new cases is starting to drop, the epidemic that reached nationwide continues at a higher level than in recent years.

And with Carnival and visitors, chances for flu to spread are multiplied, said Parham Jaberi, a physician and assistant secretary of the Office of Public Health.

He gave the Press Club of Baton Rouge an update on Louisiana’s response to the epidemic, including the recent offer of flu vaccines at health units around the state, at no out-of-pocket cost for the nearly 3,000 people who took part.

It is a measure of the severity of this year’s outbreak that Jaberi urged people to get a flu shot, even at this late date in the season. While the vaccine might not be quite as effective against all strains of the flu, he said, it is still by far the best way to deal with the risk of infection.

He again urged Louisianans to take the common-sense steps that they should have learned in kindergarten, including washing their hands and taking care of their health. If the flu strikes anyway, it is vital that people don’t go to work and spread it even further, as well as trying to avoid infecting others in the household, Jaberi said.

Jaberi also emphasized that vaccines are safe. In recent years, fears of vaccines for all sorts of diseases have become epidemic thanks to social media, where myths quickly outrun mere evidence. While nothing is 100 percent safe for every human population, the chances of even a minor reaction to the flu vaccine are small, he said.

In the case of the flu vaccine, many studies and volumes of evidence back up the medical opinion that the shots are safe for almost everyone, Jaberi said. People with other medical conditions or problems that make them anxious about a flu shot should consult a physician.

The last thing anybody wants during Carnival is a parade of family and friends with the flu. Even worse is passing it along in the course of a party or a parade. Basic precautions are still needed even as late as this year’s Mardi Gras season.

Online: http://www.theadvocate.com/

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Feb. 7

The Lake Charles American Press on federal bonds that could fund highway improvements:

Louisiana’s highway woes continue as policymakers try to come up with new ways to finance sorely needed road improvements. The latest possibility is the use of what are called federal GARVEE (Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle) bonds.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has a plan to spend $600 million to finance three major projects, including $350 million to widen Interstate 10 from the Mississippi River Bridge at Baton Rouge to the I-10/12 split. A new I-10 interchange in Kenner and new access to Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City from I-20 are the other projects.

GARVEE bonds are an advance on federal highway aid, according to a report in The Advocate. The debt would be repaid over 12 years by using $67 million per year in federal allocations that would otherwise be used for other interstate projects.

Some legislators on the Joint Transportation Committee voiced concerns about the borrowing. They remember the TIMED program in 1989 that was designed to four lane major highways with an estimated cost of 1.4 billion. It ballooned to $5.2 billion and payments extend to 2045.

Some urban and rural legislators are also concerned their road problems are being ignored in favor of other projects.

Shawn Wilson, secretary of the state Department of Transportation and Development, said he wouldn’t be pursuing the bond route if lawmakers had approved a major increase in the state’s gasoline tax. The earliest that might be a solution isn’t likely until 2021 because of constitutional and political concerns.

Wilson said the GARVEE route is being considered because, “It is just the right projects and the right time.” He said 25 other states have used the program successfully.

Rep. Terry Landry, D-Lafayette, said, “If we don’t do something we are going to continue to bleed and be behind in our infrastructure.” The state has a nearly $14 billion highway and bridge backlog.

Adam Knapp, president of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, said something has to be done for major transportation projects in Louisiana.

The State Bond Commission and the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget still must review Edwards’ highway and borrowing plans.

Wilson is correct when he says a higher gasoline tax would have been a better solution, but the state can’t wait any longer to get some major highway work started.

Online: http://www.americanpress.com/

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